A drone flies over the roof of Wuhan's huge train station, which is seems to be cowering under a gray sky. The viewer sees barren train tracks and then a group of stationary trains comes into focus. The message is clear: No wheel is turning anymore. Life has come to a standstill.
To stop the spread of the unfamiliar virus, China's authorities completely shut down a metropolis of 11 million people.
Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei
Wuhan was the first city to undergo the lockdown to help prevent the global spread of COVID-19, which Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's film shows with emotional images. Theartist, who now lives in Cambridge, England, directed his 115-minute documentary remotely from Europe: "We are releasing Coronation, our film about Wuhan, China, as a tribute to all the doctors and nurses who are fighting COVID-19," he wrote onTwitter.
His team in China analyzed almost 500 hours of film material for the documentary, Ai Weiwei told DW. Drone shots of Wuhan were used for this, as well as shots from hospital security cameras and video clips of the medical staff treating COVID-19 patients. According to the filmmaker, "ordinary citizens" were responsible on location for the shooting of Coronation.
While the rest of the world was still lulled in a sense of security, Coronation shows how Wuhan's streets were already deserted.
In short sequences, the trailer shows the courtyard of a hospital as well as hectic scenes in hospital corridors and intensive care units. Nursing staff express their commitment to their work. A just-deceased person, wrapped inan airtight package, is hoisted onto a stretcher. A person wearing a gas mask and bright yellow protective gear drives silently on an electric scooter through the streets spraying disinfectant. People wearing masks stand in line waiting to be tested for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, rotating spotlights project the insignia of communist China onto the facades of skyscrapers, rendering the whole scene quite bizarre.
In Coronation, Ai Weiwei punctuates political intentions. As stated on his website, the film addresses the "specter" of Chinese state control from the first to the last day of the lockdown. The film illuminates the "brutally efficient" and militarized response on the part of the state to control the virus, the website says.
A still from Ai Weiwei's new documentary
"They made a good decision to seal off Wuhan," Ai Weiwei told DW.At the same time, he criticizes the authorities' methods: "The method of sealing the city should not have been through literally sealing off people's doors, placing people in detention, or hiding the truth about the situation. This has caused a great panic."
The government should have also told people the truth about the situation, he said. "Before the authorities sealed off Wuhan on January 23, there was a month or two when they knew the coronavirus was human-to-human transmissible. They covered up the number of infected and the death toll," Aistressed.
There may have been several reasons for this, the artist pointed out: the National People's Congress scheduled for February, for instance. Or the signing of an important trade agreement with the US that was also imminent. The state wanted to prevent bad news from being spread, he said, and this can only happen through strict censorship.
Ai Weiwei is not the first chronicler of the events. Chinese writer Fang Fang previously recorded the fate of the people in the lockdown in an online diary, which was then published in English in May 2020 as Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City.
She described the freedoms that people in Wuhan lost without being asked and the mistakes the authorities made. She wrote about the panic, the helplessness, the fears and the tension especially in the early days of the lockdown. She criticized the "incompetent cadre."
Chinese writer Fang Fang faced backlash as critics said she was providing fodder to countries that have slammed China's handling of the pandemic
Writing each evening, she filled her blog with new posts that spread quickly before the censorship cracked down.
In the view of Western experts, China's leadership lost a great deal of trust among its own people through its coronavirus crisis management. For one thing, Beijing learned nothing from previous epidemics, political scientist Maximilian Mayer told DW. "It was also surprising for many Chinese just how comprehensive the government's possibilities for control actually are," he said.The Chinese state uses all the tools available to that end, including the employment of drones, artificial intelligence and other intelligent surveillance systems, Mayer said.
Much of this is now also evident in Ai Weiwei's film Coronation. "China was not a role model in this case," the artist said. Instead,he added, the leadership intensified the surveillance and controlling of its people,restricted freedom of speech, and further undermined the separation of powers between the judiciary and the executive branch.
Translation: Louisa Schaefer
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